It’s time for the US to study geoengineering

Can we mimic volcanoes and cool the earth?

Geoengineering — deliberate, planetary-scale efforts to counter the impact of climate change — is so controversial that a high-powered 18-member Washington task force that spent almost two years studying the idea couldn’t decide what to call it.

Most want to rename it “climate remediation.” A few want to stick with geoengineering. But all agreed that, whatever you call it, the U.S. government should begin “a coordinated federal research program to explore the potential effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of climate remediation technologies.”

In a 33-page report released today in Washington, the task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center emphasized that climate remediation is not a substitute for managing the risks of climate change through mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, most of them generated by burning fossil fuels). It also says that no geoengineering technology is ready for deployment.

But, the group said, it’s imperative that governments, scientists and engineers learn more about geoengineering because the risks of climate change are increasing.

Mitigation measures currently being considered, regardless of their pace of efficacy, will not be able to return atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels for centuries…

Although we do not know exactly how much the climate will change or how fast, globally disruptive or even catastrophic results are possible…Global climate change could unfold in ways that would be very difficult to manage

In plain language: what we’re doing (or not doing) now to deal with climate change isn’t working, and the consequences of those failures are likely to be disastrous.

“I’m not sure we would have had a consensus recommendation on research if mitigation efforts were going great guns,” said Stephen Rademaker, co-chair of the task force and a former assistant secretary of state during the Bush II administration. [click to continue...]

Geoengineering: A congressman’s thumbs up

Before we get to today’s topic–engineering the climate– let me call your attention to a couple of news items that got my attention last week.

First, a Chinese company called the Shanghai Electric Group signed a $10-billion deal to sell 42 coal-fired thermal-generation units to an Indian conglomerate called the Reliance ADA Group, the Wall Street Journal reported. Forty-two! I hate to say it, but all the efforts by enviromentalists to stop new coal plants in the U.S. won’t do much to curb global warming if India and China expand their coal-powered generation.

Second, The Nature Conservancy released a video and poster about the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Cancun saying “This is not a vacation!” and inviting people to submit videos calling for action on climate. Yes, it has come to this: So futile are the UN’s efforts to bring about a global climate treaty that environmentalists have to reassure people that there’s more to COP16  than sand and surf.

No wonder a thoughtful Tennessee congressman named Bart Gordon said this in a report published last week:

It is the opinion of the Chair that broad consideration of comprehensive and multi-disciplinary climate engineering research at the federal level begin as soon as possible in order to ensure scientific preparedness for future climate events.

Gordon, a Democrat, and his staff on the House Committee on Science and Technology, have been studying geoengineering. They held three public hearings, pored over research and worked with legislators in the UK to better understand climate engineering—which they define as

the deliberate large-scale modification of the earth’s climate systems for the purpose of counteracting and mitigating anthropogenic climate change.

Gordon’s 56-page report about climate engineering comes in the wake of a similar study from the General Accounting Office. Both favor a coordinated government research program, albeit with plenty of cautions.

In his report, Gordon notes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions must remain the top priority of dealing with global warming. This is smart because climate engineering won’t resolve the global warming threat; it will only buy more time to deal with it. Gordon goes on to say:

However, we are facing an unfortunate reality. The global climate is already changing and the onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them. Therefore, policymakers should begin consideration of climate engineering research now to better understand which technologies or methods, if any, represent viable stopgap strategies for managing our changing climate and which pose unacceptable risks.

Translation: Environmentalists and forward-thinking politicians have been trying for years to come up with a way to curb GHG emissions. They have little to show for it. So it’s time to consider alternatives.

I’ve written about climate engineering more than most environment reporters  — see this, this and this – not only because it fascinates me, but also because I’m convinced we need to learn more about it. Plus, the debate is heating up. Last week, as the GAO and Congressman Gordon spoke out, ministers at a UN meeting on biological diversity in Japan called for a moratorium on geoengineering. [click to continue...]